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The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. 





James H. Cone 



Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, 'Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there 
physician?' He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often 
evil people prospering. Centuries later our slave foreparents came along and they 
too saw the injustices of life and had nothing to look forward to morning after 
morning, but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton and the sizzling 
heat, but they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they 
took Jeremiah's question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And 
they could sing, 'There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a 
balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.' 1 

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a theologian and preacher of the black church. No one 
can understand his theology apart from the history of the black religious jxrjerience. 
This is not to deny other important influences in his thinking; but because most of 
King's interpreters ignored or belittled the place of the black church in his intellec- 
tual development, it is necessary to establish the claim that the faith of the black 
0-^> church was the most important source of King's theology. 2 

It seems clear that the major obstacle in viewing Martin King as a creative 
theologian (and one of the most important in American history) is the narrow, elitist, 
and racist definition of theology which limits its methods and subject matter to 
problems that whites identify. If by contrast one insists that the struggle for freedom 
is the only appropriate context for doing theology, then King's importance as a 
theologian can be appreciated. 

King was no armchair theologian. He was a theologian of action, an engaged 
theologian, actively seeking to transform the structures of oppression. His thinking 
emerged from his efforts to establish a just society. Therefore, it is possible to analyze 
his thought only in connection with such events as the successful Montgomery jjus 
bo ycott (19J 3-56), his defeat in Albany (1961), the Birmingham demonstrations 
(1963), the Sejma March fpr goring rights (1965), his encounter with racism in 
Chicago (1966), his dialogue with black power advocates during and after the 
Meredith Mississippi March (1966), his preparation for the Poor People's March on 
Washington (1967), his stand against the Vietnam War (1967-68), and his last 
march with garbage workers in Memphis (1968). In each of these crises, King refined 
his theology according to the needs of the people with whom and for whom he was 
struggling. His theology was not permanent or static but was dynamic, constantly 
emerging from the historical circumstances in which he was engaged. 






21 



22 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

King's theology focused on the themes of justice, love, and hope, all grounded in 
the black church's faith in Jesus Chnst. In addition to the black church tradition, 
King drew from other intellectual sources, namely, black "secular" integrationism, 
Protestant liberalism, and the nonviolent protest tradition of Gandhi and Thoreau. 
From-these four sources. King created a coherent theology in the midst of the 
freedom struggle. The first part of this essay consists of an examination of the four 
sources and their contributions, including the themes of justice, love, and hope. The 
second part examines the function and interrelationship of the sources. The third 
pan shows the development of King's thought from 1955 to 1968. I will conclude 
with a brief assessment of King's importance as an American theologian. 

THE SOURCES OF KING'S THEOLOGY 

1. The Black Integrationist Tradition, 

It is important to recognize that there has been a black integrationist tradition in this 
country for a cenrury and a half, related to the black church but often at odds with it. 
It was founded in the black abolitionism of Frederick Douglass and redefined for this 
century in the protest of W. E. B. DuBois and his allies against Booker T. 
Washington's accommodationism. It was institutionalized in the NAACP and the 
National Urban League. This line of black thought precedes by decades the Social 
Gospel movement within liberal Protestantism, which in any case seldom included 
the liberation of blacks in its agenda. 

No one embodied in his life and thought the central ideas of the integrationist 
tradition more clearly than did Martin Luther King, Jr. No one proclaimed the vision 
of an integrated society with the oratorical power comparable to his sermons and 
speeches. In this regard, his greatest moment was his "I have a Dream" address in 
Washington inl9fe3. King gave many versions of this speech before and after the 
Washington address, because his idea of the "American Dream" was the political 
symbol for his theological claims about the "beloved community." While Walter 
Rauschenbusch and other liberal theologians influenced his views regarding the 
American dream and the beloved community, the integration tradition of Douglass, 
NAACP, and the Urban League was more decisive in determining King's ideas. 

The integrationist tradition shared the political optimism of Protestant 
liberalism and, even more than the latter, embraced the values of the American 
democratic tradition as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Con- 
stitution, providing a bridge for King's approach to white America. Furthermore, 
integrationist thought resonated with the black church tradition, particularly in its 
sense of hope and the worth of the human personality, leading many blacks to see 
King as the prophet of a new day. 

2. Protestant Liberalism. 

This tradition made far less impact on King's thought than most of his interpreters 
have claimed and than King himself suggested. 3 Nevertheless, it contributed signifi- 
cantly to the process of his intellectual development. 






KING'S fHEOLOGY 



First, liberalism showed King how to deal with elements or naive conservatism 
in the black church that had repelled him even as a child. Liberal theology rejected 
both rigid orthodoxy and modern humanism, each of which emerged in response to 
the secular spirit of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, largely defined by the rise 
of scientific thinking. Liberal theologians who influenced King included Walter 
Rauschenbusch, George Davis, and L. Harold DeWolf. They applied the critical 
spirit of ratonal reflection to theology and the Bible and insisted upon the reasona- 
bleness_of the Christian faith. They rejected almost everything that the fundamen- 
talist and orthodox theologians were affirming as essentials of the faith: the iner- 
rancy of the Bible, virgin birth of Jesus, substitutionary theory of atonement, bodily 
resurrection of Jesus, miracles, and similar creedal formulations. 

Secondly, liberal thinkers introduced King to Hegel's dialectical method of 
analyzing history. King went to Boston University to study with Edgar S. Brightman, 
who guided him in a serious study of Hegel. After Brightman 1 s untimely death 
during King's first year of graduate study, King continued his study of Hegel under 
the direction of Peter A. Bertocci and L. Harold DeWolf. King said of Hegel: ''His 
contention that l truxhJajJie_jvhole' led me to a philosophical method of rational 
coherence, His analysis of the dialectical process . . . helped me to see that growth 
comes through struggle." 4 It also gave his own theology a dialectical quality. King's 
tn^ughtTlike Hegel's, emerged out of his encounter with two opposites and his 
endeavor to achieve a synthesis of the truth found in each. For example, King's 
philosophy of integration and his strategy of nonviolent direct action were developed 
out of his rejection of both the accommodationism of black conservatives and the 
separatism of black nationalists. Black conservatives failed to realize that passivity in 
response to injustice merely contributes to its continued existence. Black nationalists 
failed to realize that a just community cannot be created in an atmosphere of hate 
and violence. A just community is an integrated community, black and white to- 
gether, and it can be created only through nonviolence (love) and not violence (hate). 
Jesus and Gandhi provided a synthesis that moved beyond two opposites — 
powerless love and loveless power. Robert Penn Warren correctly said of King that 
"his philosophy is a way of living with intense polarity." 5 

Thirdly, liberalism showed him, as the classical integrationists could not, a 
rationale for relating religion to social change. King found his own concern for ethics- 
and justice present in liberal theology, especially that of Walter Rauschenbusch. 
There is no doubt that Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) 
made a profound impact on Martin King's theology, particularly Rauschenbusch's 
interpretation of the message of the Hebrew prophets and the "social aims of 
Jesus." 6 King's admiration of Brightman grew from an appreciation of the ethical 
implications of Brightman's philosophy of personalism. "It [personalism]," said 
King, "gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal 
God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human 
personality." 7 

King shared the liberals' rejection of the neo-orthodox theology of the middle 
decades of this century. Though he probably did not study Barth seriously, he 
regarded Barth as anti-rational and semi-fundamentalist. a To be sure, King read 



24 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

ReinhoJd Niebuhr and was deeply influenced by his Moral Man and Immoral Society 
(1932), especially Niebuhr's analysis of the self-interested orientation of groups 
when compared to individuals. He was also deeply moved by Niebuhr's critique of 
pacifism. Nevertheless, King felt that Niebuhr's estimate of human nature was too 
low and his view of love was restricted to relations between individuals and not 
applicable to society. 9 

In his essay entitled, "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," King analyzes the impact of 
liberal theology upon his thinking. The influence of liberal theology can be seen 
clearly in many of the major emphases of his theology: optimism regarding human 
nature, accent on the beloved community, love as the central meaning of the gospel, 
the "unique God-consciousness of Jesus/' the value of human personality, ethical 
activity as a necessary corollary of the Christian faith, God's imminent presence in 
the world — all of these ideas are prominently present in liberal Protestant 
thought. 

3. Mohandas K. Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. 

Though liberal theology influenced King's philosophical understanding of love, it 
was the philosophy of Mahatrna Gandhi, the "little brown man" from India, as King 
called him, who provided the intellectual justification and the methodological im- 
plementation of his perspective on nonviolent direct action. Thoreau provided the 
philosophical justification for civil dfsobedience in the context of the North Ameri- 
can democratic tradition. Martin King was introduced to Thoreau's Civil Disobedi- 
ence during his student days at Morehouse and to the importance of Gandhi as a 
student at Crozer Seminary and, in a special way, at a lecture by Mordecai Johnson 
during the same period. Under the influence of Bayard Rustin and Glen Smiley, King 
became a firm devotee of Gandhi's theory of nonviolence. He connected Gandhi 
with Jesus and began "to~seTTiis philosophy of nonviolence as similar to Jesus' 
suffering love on the cross. The idea that "unmerited suffering is redemptive" 
emerged as a dominant theme in King's theology as he constantly reminded blacks 
that they would experience a "season of suffering" before justice is achieved. 10 

The centrality of Gandhi and Jesus, nonviolence and the cross in his speeches 
and publications undergirded King's messages to blacks that there will be no free- 
dom apart from suffering. The idea that the unearned suffering of blacks was re- 
demptive appeared early in his theology and remained dominant throughout his life. 
When the bombing of his house aroused blacks to the potential for violence, King 
gave the anxious crowd in Montgomery a message that he would emphasize many 
times during his ministry: 



We must not return violence under any condition. I know this is difficult advice to 
follow, especially since we have been the victims of no less than ten bombings. But 
this is the way of Christ; it is the way of the cross. We must somehow believe that 
unearned suffering is redemptive. 11 



Cx 



KING'S THEOLOGY 15 

A similar emphasis on the necessity tor suffering is found in Gandhi. Explicating 
satyagraba (soul force), Gandhi wrote: "[It] is the vindication of truth not by inflic- 
tion of suffering on the opponent but on one's self. . . . Rivers of blood may have to 
flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood." 

After much reflection on Gandhi's philosophy, and following a journey to India 
during which he discussed his views with many scholars there, King began to speak 
more forthrightly regarding the inevitability of black suffering through nonviolence 
before the goal of an integrated, beloved community can be achieved. No statement 
expressed this idea more forcefully than his often repeated statement: 

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffer- \1 s\ 

ing. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we %r- ^-^ 
cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will and we ^ 
will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded ^ q* 
perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside i^ 
road, bearing us and leaving us half dead, and we will still love you. But we will 
soon wear you do^yji^xj>ur^apacirv to ^suffer. And in winning our freedom we will "~~^jr S£ ^v* 
so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process. 12 

There is no doubt that King was deeply influenced by Gandhi's philosophy of 
nonviolence as a potent weapon for the practical implementation of Jesus' idea of 
love in the context of the black struggle for justice. But it is obvious that his un- 
shakeable commitment to nonviolence and the inevitability of black suffering was 
much more a ppealing to libe ral whites than to oppressed blacks. Many black scho- 
lars, like Kenneth Clark, warned King of the psychological damage to black person- 
ality when black people are urged to assume the heavy burden that his theology 
required. 13 

King's use of Thoreau's concept of civil disobedience was to come later in the 
course of his political development. Open disobedience to the law happened first 
during the sit-ins (I960), freedom rides (1961), and the Birmingham demonstrations 
(1963). Civil disobedience was initially limited to regional laws of discrimination 
against blacks in the South. 

Thoreau said that Git is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much 
as for the right. The only obligation which I have the right to assume is to do at 
anytime what I think right.?' 4 A firm opponent of slavery, Thoreau was also jailed for 
his refusal to pay taxes to support the war with Mexico. When his friend, Ralph 
Waldo Emerson, reportedly asked, "Thoreau, why are you in jail?", Thoreau re- 
plied, "Emerson, why are you out of jail?'* 

Although Martin King could apply Thoreau's logic of civil disobedience in his 
protest against regional segregation laws of the South, he had more difficulty apply- 
ing it to federal laws, because he used the federal laws as the basis for his disobedi- 
ence of discriminatory laws of the South. He expected and received the legal support 
of the federal courts, the President, and the Congress in the achievement of black 
people's civil rights. His concern about federal support probably accounted for his- 



26 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

retreat in the second attempt to cross the Pettus Bridge during the Selma to 
Montgomery march. In Memphis, however, he resofved to disobey a federal injunc- 
tion against the march but was assassinated before it actually happened. 

4. The Faith of the Black Church. 

Without seeking to minimize the importance of the other three sources, they should 
be interpreted in the light of the faith of the black church which decisively influenced 
the development and final shape of King's theology. King's theology was defined by 
the themes of justice, love, and hope. The meaning of each, while influenced by the 
other sources, achieved their distinctiveness as King attempted to fulfill his vocation 
as a black preacher. He believed that the gospel demanded that he speak the truth 
and that he work toward its establishment in human relations. 

justice, love, and hope are central themes in the history of the black religious 
tradition. It was black people's concern for justice in the church and society which 
led them to organize independent churches during the late eighteenth and early 
nineteenth centuries. It was their concern for love in human relations which pre- 
vented their fight for justice from degenerating into an attitude of vengeance and 
violence. It was black people's focus on God's esch a to logical hope that enabled them 
to "keep on keeping on," fighting for the right with love in their hearts, even though 
the achievement of justice seemed bleak and doubtful. 

Martin King deeply internalized the values of the black religious tradition in 
which he was born. 

I am many things to many people; Civil Rights leader, agitator, trouble-maker and 
orator, but m the quiet resources of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a 
Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist 
preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher, and the great-grandson of a Baptist 
preacher. The Church is my life and I have given my life to the Church. . . . 15 

The distinctiveness of King's ideas of justice, love, and hope were developed in 
the context of his vocation as pastor of Dexter and Ebenezer Baptist Churches and as 
president of SCLC, an organization composed mainly of preachers. His theology, 
therefore, can be properly understood only from the vantage point of his belief that 
he had been set aside by God to be the leader of blacks, the people whom he believed 
God had chosen to "save the soul of America." His belief that black people were 
called by God to redeem America through their suffering love was derived from the 
black religious tradition. 

The most appropriate way to decide what was primary for King's theology is to 
identify the source to which he turned in moments of crisis during his fight for 
justice. Where he turned when his back was up against the wall and when everything 
seemed hopeless will tell us far more about his theology than the papers he wrote in 
graduate school. Engulfed by the "midnight of despair," where did he receive the 
hope that "morning will come?" 16 

The evidence is clear: Whether we speak of the Montgomery bus boycott, the 



KING'S THEOLOGY 



• 






Birmingham demonstrations, the Seima march, black power or Vietnam, King 
turned to the faith of the black church in moments of frustration and despair. His 
existential appropriation of black faith occurred a few weeks after the inauguration 
of the Montgomery bus boycott. He not only referred to this event in his writings but 
especially in many of his sermons in black churches. 17 One night, January 27, 1956, 
King received a nasty telephone call: "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now 
and if you aren't out of this town in three days, we're going blow your brains out and 
blow up your house/' Though he had received many similar threats (about forty 
daily), for some reason that one stunned him, preventing him from going to sleep. He 
began to realize that his wife and newly born baby daughter could be taken from him 
or he from them at any moment. He got up out of bed and went to the kitchen to 
heat some coffee, " thinking," he said, "that coffee would give me a little relief." 

In the midst of one of the most agonizing experiences of his life, he searched for 
a place that he could stand. "I started thinking about many things; I pulled back on 
the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities trying to give 
philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, 
but the answer didn't quite come there." Unable to cope with his frustration and 
despair, King turned to the God of the black faith that he had been taught as a child: 



; . 



Something said to me, you can't call on daddy now; he's in Atlanta, a hundred- 
sevenry-rive miles away. . , . You've got to call on that something, on that person 
that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no 
way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to 
know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget 
it. Oh yes, I prayed a prayer. And I prayed out loud that night. I said, 'Lord, I'm 
down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we 
represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering, I'm 
losing my courage, and I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me 
weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak.' 



It was in the midst of this crisis of faith that King experienced the liberating 
presence of God as never before. He heard an inner voice saying: "Martin Luther, 
stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be 
with you, even until the end of the world." After that liberating experience he said: 
"I was ready to face anything." 18 From that point onward, King never doubted 
God's presence in the struggle for justice, reassuring him that love and nonviolence, 
despite the odds, will triumph over hate and violence. 

King's theology was defined by an eschatological hope, God's promise not to 
leave the little ones alone in struggle. In his sermons, he spoke often of "midnight," 
"darkness," and the "cross," usually referring to racism, poverty, and war. But in 
spite of the great difficulties he encountered in fighting these evils, King was certain 
that "we shall overcome," because "truth crushed to the earth will rise again." 



K 



Sometimes I feel discouraged. And I don't mind telling you this morning that 
sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I moved through 



28 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama I feel discouraged. Living everyday under me 
threat of death I feel discouraged sometime. Living everyday under extensive criti- 
cism, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes 1 feel dis- 
couraged and feel my work's in vain, bur then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. 
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. 

THE FUNCTION AND INTERRELATIONSHIP OF THE SOURCES 
The black religious tradition always remained at the heart of King's thought and 
practice, even though he rarely articulated its importance in most of h.s writings and 
speeches. He seldom referred to the theological significance of the black church, 
because almost everything he published was intended primarily for a white audience 
who had doubts about the legality and morality of nonviolent direct *«'° n andcl ™ 
disobedience. Many whites complained about the violence which avd right* i dem- 
onstrations evoked, and they strongly urged King to "wait, cool off, and no 
to move too last." Martin King's frequent appeals to Gandh, »«ia^ 
Euro-American theologians and philosophers, were intended to persuade the wh.te 
public that he had sound philosophical and Christian reasons tor his normo In 
demonstrations. He wanted to demonstrate that his claim that *»reg.non » a 
cancer in the bodv politic" as well as a "tragtc evil which is utterly unchristian was 
not simply the rhetoric of a black preacher but was derived from the most influenna. 

thinkers in the West. , , ■ 

On the other hand, when Martin King spoke to an audience ma black church, 
he mav have referred to white theologtans and philosophers but they were secon- 
dary to his overall purpose. Blacks did not need to be persuaded hha. «*?*»»*» 
morally evil and contrary to democratic values and thus should be ehmmated They 
needed inspiration and courage to struggle against tremendous odds. I was black 
people's fanh that "God can make a way out of no way" which King knew in his 
heart and articulated so well in his sermons. 

Focusing primarily on the themes of justice, love, and hope as they are grounded 
,n faith King integrated the four sources into a coherent whole, with each theme 
emer mg as dominant at different periods of his life as he sought to common icate : ta 
dea to black and white audiences. Protestant liberalism and the philosophies of 
G ndh°and Thoreau were the sources which provided the intellectual ™ duit 
King used to interpret h.s ideas and actions regarding nonviolence and evil d ^obedi- 
ence to the white community. They gave htm a method of fighting for , us ace that 
was consistent with American democratic values and the theological and philosophr- 

cal tradition of the West. , . 

When King spoke to a black audience, his chief source was the Bible, as 
mediated through the black church tradition. It can be said that as long as King was 
^undent hat justice would be achieved in a reasonable amount of time and with .he 
connaeni uiai l m „Hprates of the South and North, labor, 

support ot the federal government, white moderates or rne Thoreau 

and the churches, he relied primarily on liberal protestantism. Gandhi, and Thoreau 
to express his theology. The dominant theme was always love with .ustice and hope 



£? 



interpreted in its light. But when the problem of injustice seemed insurmountable 
and the white support for justice was not visibly present, King turned to the faith ot 
the black church, with an emphasis on God's eschatological promise to "transform 
dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows," "the fatigue ot despair into the buoyancy of 
hope." 

The faith of the black church and the integrationist tradition in black history 
provided the political and religious sources for expressing King's views to the black 
community. Because white racists controlled the centers of sociopolitical power, 
many blacks were paralyzed by the fear of loss of property and life. They were 
uncertain of their courage to challenge the white power structure and of their 
spiritual strength to sustain themselves in that challenge. 

Furthermore, some blacks were not sure that integration into white society was 
the most appropriate goal of the civil rights movement or whether nonviolence was 
the right method for achieving that goal. The black political tradition of Frederick 
Douglass and the NAACP provided the rationale that integration was the correct 
political goal and that nonviolent direct action was the only way to achieve it. But it 
was the faith of the black church that provided black people with the courage to fight 
against great odds, giving them the hope that the goal of justice would eventually be 
achieved. 



CHANGE AND CONTINUITY IN KING'S THEOLOGY 

The function and interrelationship of the sources are illuminated when seen in the 
context of an analysis of the continuity and change in King's theology. The character 
of King's theological development was shaped by two overall concerns: what he was 
fighting against and what he was fighting for. He began his public ministry by 
fighting against racism, and the events of the 1960s forced him to connect it with 
poverty and militarism. Though King's theology went through several developmen- 
tal changes between 1955 and 1968, this aspect of his thought should be analyzed in 
relation to the continuity in his thinking. As the changes can best be illuminated in 
relation to what he was fighting against and the strategies he developed to overcome 
evil, so the continuity in King's theology can best be demonstrated when it is 
analyzed in relation to what he was fighting for. King's goal was not simply the 
elimination of racism, poverty, and war, but rather the establishment of an inte- 
grated community of persons of all races, working together toward the building of 
the kingdom which he called the "beloved community." Everything King did and 
said regarding the church and society was intended to create a new community in 
which love and justice defined the relationship between all people. 

Martin King began his public career with an emphasis on the justice of God. He 
derived its meaning from the Hebrew prophets, as interpreted in the faith and history 
of the black church and liberal protestant theology. He also used the American 
democratic tradition, especially as found in the Constitution and the Declaration of 
Independence. As blacks in Montgomery began the bus boycott, King based their 
actions on the theme of justice in the Christian faith, and love and hope were 



28 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 



Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama I feel discouraged. Living everyday under the 
threat of death I feel discouraged sometime. Living everyday under exrensive criti- 
cism, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel dis- 
couraged and feel my work's in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. 
"here is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. 



THE FU ACTION AND INTERRELATIONSHIP OF THE SOURCES 



The black religious tradition always remained at the heart of King's thought and 
practice, even though he raijely articulated its importance in most of his writings and 
speeches. He seldom relented to the theological significance of the black church, 
because almost everything lie published was intended primarily for a white audience 
who had doubts about the legality and morality of nonviolent direct action and civil 
disobedience. Many whites complained about the violence which civil rights dem- 
onstrations evoked, ancl tney strongly urged King to "wait," "cool off," and "not 
to move too fast." Martin King's frequent appeals to Gandhi and a variety of 
Euro- American theologians and philosophers, were intended to persuade the white 
public that he had sound philosophical and Christian reasons for his nonviolent 
demonstrations. He wanted to demonstrate that his claim that "segregation is a 
cancer in the body politic" as welj. as a "tragic evil which is utterly unchristian" was 
not simply the rhetoric of a black preacher but was derived from the most influential 
thinkers in the West. / \ 

On the other hand, when Martin King spoke to an audience in a black church, 
he may have referred! to white theologians and philosophers, but they were secon- 
dary to his overall purpose. Blacks did not need to be persuaded that segregation was 
morally evil and contrary to democratic values and thus should be eliminated. They 
needed inspiration' and courage to struggle against tremendous odds. It was black 
people's faith that?' "God can make a way out of no way" which King knew in his 
heart and articulated so well in his sermons. \ 

Focusing prifnarily on the themes of justice, love, and hope as they are grounded 
in faith. King integrated the four sources into a coherent whole, with each theme 
emerging as dominant at different periods of his life as he sought to communicate his 
ideas to black and white audiences. Protestant liberalism and the philosophies of 
Gandhi and THoreau were the sources which provided the intellectual structure that 
King used to interpret his ideas and actions regarding nonviolence and civil disobedi- 
ence to the white community. They gave him a method of fighting for justice that 
was consistent with American democratic values and the theological and philosophi- 
cal tradition of the West. 

When King spoke to a black audience, his chief source was the Bible, as 
mediated through the black church tradition. It can be said that as long as King was 
confident that justice would be achieved in a reasonable amount of time and with the 
support of the federal government, white moderates of the South and North, labor, 
and the Ghurches, he relied primarily on liberal protestantism, Gandhi, and Thoreau 
to express his theology. The dominant theme was always love with justice and hope 



interpreted in its light. But shortly after the boycott began, white ana biack advisors, 
concerned about the development or a method or social change that would avoid 
violence, urged King to adopt Gandhi's method or nonviolent direct action and 
thereby place love at the center of his thought. During this period, love replaced 
justice as the dominant theme, and King derived its meaning from the life and 
— teachings of Jesus and Gandhi. Also useful were the theologians and philosophers he 
studied in graduate school. With an emphasis on love strongly influenced by liberal 
Protestantism, justice was defined as the absence of segregation and the establish- 
ment of an integrated community, and hope became similar to the liberal optimism 
that King studied in graduate school. 

When King realized that the life-chances of the poor had not been affected by 
the gains of the civil rights movement, that the federal government was not nearly as 
committed to fighting the war on poverty as it was to fighting the war in Vietnam 
and that white moderates were not as concerned with the establishment of justice in 
the North as they had been in fighting legal segregation in the South, the idea of hope 
became the dominant theme in his theology. His reflections on hope were derived 
almost exclusively from biblical religion as mediated through the faith and history of 
the black church. Hope was carved out of the suffering and disappointments he 
experienced in fighting injustice in urban ghettos (especially Chicago), in dialoging 
with black power advocates, and in taking his stand against the war in Vietnam. He 
placed love and justice in an eschatological context, with an emphasis on bearing 
witness to God's coming freedom by taking a stand for justice now, even though the 
odds against its establishment are great. 

Between 1955 and 1968, Martin King moved from an optimistic integrationist 
to a temporary separatist; 19 from a social reformer to a militant nonviolent re- 
volutionary; 20 from an intellectual dependence on classical western philosophy to a 
call for the study of black philosophers; 21 from a naive belief that southern white 
moderates (especially ministers) would join him in the struggle for an integrated 
society to a deepening skepticism regarding whether even white northern liberal 
Christians, labor, and government officials had the moral sensitivity to understand 
the depth of the disadvantages that African- Americans must overcome in order to 
survive in a society that does not recognize their humanity; 22 from his inspiring "I 
Have a Dream" oration to his despairing assertion that "the dream I had in 
Washington back in 1963 has often turned into a nightmare;" 23 from his silence 
about the Vietnam war to his well-known "Beyond Vietnam" speech at New York's 
Riverside Church (April 4, 1967), proclaiming that "America is the greatest purveyer 
of violence in the world today." 24 

To understand the character of King's theological development, it is important 
to note its three phases, with each being defined by an emphasis on justice, love, and 
hope. When he reluctantly became the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, he 
was not an advocate of nonviolent direct action or a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. 
Indeed, as white violence increasingly emerged as a threat to his life, King applied for 
a license to carry a gun in his car but was refused by the Montgomery police 
department. The guiding principle for his initial involvement in the bus boycott was 



\ING S THEOLOGY 



; I 



the justice of God as defined by the prophets and Jesus Christ. Rerlectmg back on the 
preparation for his first major speech at Holt Street Baptist Church (December 5, 
1955), King said that his chief question was: "How could I make a speech that would 
be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate 
enough to keep this fever within controllable and Christian bounds?" 25 

After referring to the "right to protest" as an inherent part of American democ- 
racy, and then connecting what happened to Rosa Parks with the "long history of 
abuses and insults that Negro citizens had experienced on the city buses," King 
creatively articulated the balance between active protest and appropriate moderation 
with the passion and rhythm so typical of the best in the black church tradition. As 
he increased the volume of his voice, seeking to allow himself to be used by God's 
Spirit to empower poor blacks to "walk the streets in dignity rather than ride the bus 
in humiliation," King said: 

There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of 
oppression. There comes a time . . . when people ger tired of being tlung across the 
abyss of humiliation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There 
comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of 
life's July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November. We are 
here this evening because we're tired now. 26 

Martin King justified the boycott on both legal and moral grounds, emphasizing 
that the "great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for" right" and 
that the Christian faith demanded that black people "stand up for their rights." In 
sharp contrast to King's later description of this speech in Stride Toward Freedom in 
which he said "love your enemies" was his chief emphasis, 27 my examination of the 
tape and printed text revealed that justice, and not love was his major theme. 

We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist. . . . We're going to 
work with grim and firm determination to gain justice on the buses of this city. And 
we are not wrong ... in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme 
Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States 
is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of 
Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to earth. If we are 
wrong, justice is a lie. ... We are determined ... to work and fight until 'justice 
runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.' 28 

There is a great difference between King's report of this speech in Stride Toward 
Freedom and the tape of what he actually said on that occasion. Even as King urged 
blacks to keep "God in the forefront," his emphasis remained on justice and not 
love, coercion^ and not persuasion. 



I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is 
one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. 
And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that whichwould 



KING S THEOLOGY 



il 






the justice of God as defined by the prophets and Jesus Christ. Reflecting back on the 
preparation tor his first major speech at Holt Street Baptist Church (December 5, 
1955), King said that his chief question was: "How could I make a speech that would 
be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate 
enough to keep this fever within controllable and Christian bounds?" 25 

After referring to the "right to protest" as an inherent part of American democ- 
racy, and thericonnecting what happened to Rosa Parks with the "long history of 
abuses and insults that Negro citizens hadj experienced on the city buses," King 
creatively articulated the balance between active protest and appropriate moderation 
with the passion and rhythm so typical of the best in the black church tradition. As 
he increased the volume of his voice, seeking to allow himself to be used by God's 
Spirit to empower podt blacks to "walk thje streets in dignity rather than ride the bus 
in humiliation," King said: 

There comes a rime when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of 
oppression. There comes a time . . . when people get tired of being flung across the 
abyss of humiliation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There 
comes a rime when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of 
life's July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November. We are 
here this evening because we're tire^l now. 26 

\ / 

Martin King justified the boycott on both legal and moral grounds, emphasizing 
that the "great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right" and 
that the Christian faith demanded/that black people "stand up for their rights." In 
sharp contrast to King's later description of this speech in Stride Toward Freedom in 
which he said "love your enemies/" was his chief emphasis, 27 my examination of the 
tape and printed text revealed traat justide, and not love was his major theme. 



We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist, . . . We're going to 
work with grim and rirm determination to gain justice on the buses of this city. And 
we are not wrong ... in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme 
Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States 
is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of 
Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to earth. If we are 
wrong, justice is a lie. . . / We are determined ... to work and fight until 'justice 
runs down like waters &pd righteousness like a mighty stream.' 28 

There is a great difference between King's report of this speech in Stride Toward i 
Freedom and the tape of what he actually said on that occasion. Even as King urged 
blacks to keep "God in the forefront," his emphasis remained on justice and not I 
love, coercion and not persuasion. 



I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is 
one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. 
And justice" isTeally love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which would 



32 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

work against love. The Almighty God . . . is not . . . just standing out saying, 
•Behold Thee, I love vou Negro.' He's also the God that standeth before the nations 
and says: 'Be still and know that I am God. and if you don't obey me I'm gonna 
break the backbone of vour power, and cast you out ot the arms or your interna- 
tional and national relationships.' Standing beside love is always justice. And we are 
only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools ot persuasion but 
we've got to use the tools of coercion. 29 

On the tape of King's Holt Street address, there is no mention of Gandhi's 
method of nonviolent direct action and no reference to Jesus' command to love 
vour enemies." His stress was almost exclusively on justice as defined by the Ameri- 
can democratic tradition of equality and rhe biblical theme of the righteousness ot 

' As King's involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott deepened and the appeal 
for white supporr was accentuated, the Cjhrisjrijm idea of love emerged as the central 
theme of his theology. Love became the modifieiofj^tice as he sought to eradicate 
the fears of both blacks ^whites regarding violence. By the time King wrote Stnae 
Toward freedom (1958), he had become an international hgure, with white and 
black advisors assisting him in his work, including the editing of his book manu- 
script and addresses. I am convinced that the change in emphasis from ,usnce tojove 
was partly due to the editorial hand of his advisors. 30 

As the bovcott proceeded, King's practical concern about the dangers ot vio- 
lence along with his acceptance of the naive optimism of liberal theology caused 
him to change his primary emphasis from justice to love. While acknowledging the 
important role of the black church and the absence of any reference to Gandhi, king 
seemed to have forgotten about his original accent on justice. For example, m Stride 
Toward Freedom, he recalls: 

The first davs of the protest ... the phrase most often heard was 'Christian love." It 
was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine ot passive resistance, that 
initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus 
of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon ot love. 

Likewise King's focus on Gandhi and nonviolent resistance was a later de- 
velopment, emerging simultaneously with his new emphasis on love. The connection 
between Gandh. and the Montgomery bus boycott was suggested initially by Juliette 
Morgan's letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser. Later on, nonviolent 
direct action was intellectually defined and practically implemented when Bayard 
Rustin and Glen E. Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) )Oined Martin 
King as advisors about two months after the boycott began. 32 

During the phase in which love was dominant in King's theology, he defined 
racism as segregation and designated it as America's "chief moral dilemma." But the 
more he fought racism the more he came to realize that it was much more complex 
than the discrimination laws in the South. To King's surprise, he not only found 
racism in the North, but discovered also that northern racism, though less visible, 



KING'S THEOLOGY 



J 3 



was more destructive to human personality and also more deeply embedded in the 
sociopolitical structures than what he had seen in the South. 

After the Selma March and the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), several 
events caused King to undertake a deeper analysis of racism, which in turn disclosed 
the severe limitations of what had been achieved in the southern-based civil rights 
movement. Five days following the signing of the Voting Rights Bill by President 
Johnson (August 6), the Watts riot erupted (August 11), initiating a radical change in 
King's perspective regarding the nature of racism and what would be needed to 
eliminate it. His struggle and frustrations in Chicago, the rise of black power, drastic 
cuts in the domestic budget, and a rapid escalation of expenditutes for the war in 
Vietnam — all these events contributed to King's movement toward the left. His 
analysis of racism disclosed its global manifestations, especially its connection with 
two other evils: poverty and war. King began to acknowledge publicly the limita- 
tions of his earlier views and started to connect racism with "class issues, ... the 
privileged as over against the undepnvileged," and even openly advocating democra- 
tic socialism. 33 

When King saw the depth of the problem of racism as reflected by extensive 
poverty in the northern ghettos and its devastating effects on the self-worth of black 
people, he became so incensed that he could no longer keep silent regarding the 
moral contradictions involved. It was during the period between the end of 1965 and 
his assassination in 1968 that Martin King entered a revolutionary path that led him 
to declate "God's judgment ... on America" because of its failure to use its vastv 
economic resources for life rather than death. 



There is something wrong with our nation. Something desperately wrong. . . . 
There is confusion in the land. . . . This is why we've made a decision to come to the 
seat of government . . . [and] will seek to say to the nation that if you don't 
straighten up, and that if you do not begin to use your vast resources of wealth to 
lift God's children from the dungeons of despair and poverty, then you are writing 
your own obituary. We are coming to Washington to say to America, 'straighten 
up, and fly right.' 34 

The primary source fot King's prophetic critique of President Johnson's war 
policies was the black church tradition. There is nothing in liberal protestant theol- 
ogy, Gandhi or Thoreau, or even the integrationist tradition of Douglass and the 
civil rights organizations that can explain the content and the style of King's devas- 
tating critique of America's involvement in Vietnam. He was unrelenting in his 
criticisms, and he refused the advice of any of his black and white friends who 
warned him about his lack of competence in foteign policy and the danger of mixing 
peace and civil rights. Some even questioned his patriotism. But King was quick to 
respond that he was speaking out against the war not because he was a civil rights 
activist or an expert in foreign policy. He spoke solely in theji ame of^Go d's righ t- 
eousness and human decency. As a minister of the~God of Jesus, he could not keep 
silent, for the truth of the Gospel was at stake. 



*n „ 



34 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

Although his "Beyond Vietnam" address was perhaps his greatest hour and best 
known indictment of U.S. policies in Vietnam, it is in his unpublished sermons chat 
one can clearly observe the depth of the agony of King's concerns and the source of 
his theological criticism. Most of these sermons were delivered at Ebenezer Baptist 
Church in Atlanta. Hardly anyone can read them or listen to the tapes and fail to 
acknowledge the decisive impact of the black and biblical traditions upon the con- 
tent of his sermons and the forcefulness in which he delivered them. They include: 
Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam," "Mastering Our Fears," 'The Drum 
Major Instinct," "A Knock at Midnight," "Standing by the Best in an Evil Time " 
' Who is My Neighbor?," "Unfulfilled Dreams," and "But If Not . . . ." 

In these sermons, King takes his stand with the prophets of the biblical tradition 
and rejects the advice of many of his friends and followers in SCLC, NAACP labor 
government, and even black and white churches, all of whom told him to keep silent 
about the war in Vietnam, because he was alienating President Johnson and the 
financial supporters of SCLC. With prophetic passion, so typical of the best in the 
black church tradition, King told them: 

I'm sorry, you don't know me. I'm not a consensus leader. I don't determine what is 
right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership 
Conference, or by taking a Gallup Poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a 
genuine leader is not a searcher tor consensus but a molder of .consensus." 

King deeply believed that just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to take 
their stand against King Nebuchadnezzar and refuse to worship the King's golden 
image, even though they faced the flames of the fiery furnace, so he, Martin King 
had to take his stand against Lyndon Johnson's war policies and refuse to bow down 
to the economic and political pressures of the State department and its supporters 
As the intensity of the pressures increased, even to the extent that the FBI was trving 
to force him to commit suicide, King turned to the God of black faith, because he 
believed that, as was true of the "three Hebrew children," God could deliver him "if 
it be so" (Daniel 3:17). 

Using the response of the three Hebrews to Nebuchadnezzar as a sermon title, 
But It Not • 36 , King made it clear that he was prepared to give his life for the 
truth of God. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to Martin King than 
speaking and doing the truth. The more he was pressured to keep silent, the more 
forcefully he spoke out against the evils of racism, poverty, and war. In fact King 
became so disturbed about injustice that many of his biographers and some close 
friends have suggested that he was on the verge of a mental breakdown. I am sure 
that many contemporaries of the Hebrew prophets had similar feelings about them 
The nature of the prophets' vocation almost always threw them into conflict w.th the 
values of their time. Prophets of every age are truth-tellers, and the "powers that be" 
never want to hear the truth in a world based on the.r lies. When Whitnev Young of 
the Urban League, a colleague and friend, cornered King in public and reprimanded 
him about his views on Vietnam, King responded sharplv: "Whitnev, what you are 






KING'S I HEGLCG\ 



o 



saying may get you a foundation grant but it will not get you into the kingdom of 
truth." 

One cannot understand correctly Martin King's convictions about Vietnam, 
black power, racism, and poverty without a keen knowledge of the role of the 
"preacher as prophet" in the black community. When the black preacher is true to 
his/her vocational calling, he/she must speak the truth of God regardless of who is 
affected by its judgment. That was why King's most severe indictments against the 
evils of racism, poverty, and war were delivered as sermons. As a prophet of God, he 
had no choice but to speak the Word of God. In the sermon, entitled "Standing by 
the Best in an Evil Time," King made a forceful and prophetic statement on why he 
could not keep silent on the evil of America's involvement in Vietnam. 

I've decided what I'm going to do. I ain't going to kill nobody in Mississippi . . . 
[and] in Vietnam. I ain't going to study war no more. And you know what? I don't 
care who doesn't like what I say about it. I don't care who criticizes me in an 
editorial. I don't care what white person or Negro criticizes me. I'm going to stick 
with the best. On some positions, cowardice asks the question 'is it safe?' Expe- 
diency asks the question, 'is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, "is it popular?' But 
conscience asks the question, 'is it right?' And there comes a time when a true 
follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that's neither safe nor politic nor popular 
but he must take that stand because it is right. Fvery'now and then we sing about it, 
'if you are right, God will fight your battle.' I'm going to stick by the best during 
these evil times. 37 



CONCLUSION 

As Americans begin to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a national 
holiday, seminary students and faculty, church leaders and Christians throughout 
the world should not forget his importance as theologian, perhaps the most impor- 
tant in American history. In saying this, I do not wish to minimize the significant 
contribution of other theologians — whether Jonathan Edwards, Walter Raushen- 
busch, or the Niebuhr brothers. There are three reasons which make Martin King a 
candidate for the status of America's most outstanding theologian. 

1. If theology is a disciplined endeavor to interpret the meaning of the gospel 
for the present time, and if the gospel is God's liberation of the poor from bondage, 
then I would claim that no one has articulated the Christian message of freedom 
more effectively, prophetically, and creatively in America than Martin Luther King, 

Jr. 

2. Unlike many American theologians who often look toward Europe in order 
to identify theological problems which require disciplined reflection, Martin King's 
theological perspective achieved its creativity by engaging uniquely American issues. 
He was truly an American theologian and not simply a tfieoTogfarfwhb Happened to 
live in the United States. No theologian has made a greater impact on American 
culture than Martin Luther King, Jr. The making of his birthday a national holiday 
merely symbolizes that fact. 



36 UNION SEMINARY QUARTERLY REVIEW 

3. Unlike most white theologians who do theology as if their detinitions of it 
are the only ones and as if their problems are the only ones which deserve the 
attention of disciplined theological reflection, Martin King did not limit his theologi- 
cal reflections to the problems of one group. While he began with a focus on the 
racial oppresion of blacks, his theological vision was universal. He was as concerned 
about the liberation of whites from their oppression as oppressors as he was in 
eliminating the racial oppression of blacks. He was as concerned about the life- 
chances of brown children in Vietnam as he was about black children in America's 
cities. King's vision was truly international, embracing all humanity. That is why his 
name is invoked by the oppressed around the world who are lighting for freedom. 
Teachers of theology do themselves, their students, and their discipline a great 
disservice when they ignore the outstanding contribution that King has made to 
American theology and to all who are seeking to understand the gospel today. For if 
one wishes to know what it means to be a theologian, there is no better example than 
Martin Luther King, jr. 



NOTES 



1. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Thou Fool," 27 August 1967, an unpublished sermon delivered at Mount 
Pisgah Baptist Church, Chicago, Ilinois, p. 11. Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, Series III, Martin Luther 
King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia (hereafter referred to as King Center 
Archives). 

2. Although Kenneth Smith and Ira Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of 
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Valley Forge: Judson, 1974) is a reliable interpretation of the impact of King's 
graduate studies upon his thinking (especially liberal protestant theology), this text is seriously flawed by 
the authors' failure to place the black religious tradition at the center of his theology. However, in a 
conversation with Professor Smith, he indicated that he agrees with my claim regarding the importance of 
the black religious tradition in determining the content and shape of King's theology and plans to make 
this point in a revised edition of this text. 

Although it suffers from the same weakness as his joint text with Kenneth Smith, I found Ira Zepp, 
Jr.'s "The Intellectual Sources of the Ethical Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., as Traced in His 
Writings with Special Reference to the Beloved Community," (Ph.D. diss., St. Mary's Seminary and 
University, 1971) especially useful in regard to influences of King's graduate studies upon his theology. 

I was particularly disappointed with John Ansbro, The Making of a Mind: Martin Luther King, Jr., 
(Mary knoll, NY: Orbis, 1982). See my review in Fellowship, Jan-Feb. 1984 and his response in ibid., 
March 1984. A similar weakness is also found in James P. Hanigan, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 
Foundations of Nonviolence (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984). 

There are some scholars who have begun to recognize the importance of the black church for King's 
theology. See James Wm. McClendon, Jr., "The Religion of Martin Luther King, Jr." in his Biography as 
Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974), chapter 3; Lewis V. Baldwin, "Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black 
Church, and the Messianic Vision," The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, vol. xii, 
nos. 1 & 2, Fall 1984/Spring 1985, and "Understanding Martin Luther King, Jr., Within the Context of 
Southern Black Religious History," a paper presented at the Chicago meeting of the American Academy 
of Religion, December 1984; David J. Garrow, "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Nobel Prize: Bearing the 
Crosses of Leadership," an essay prepared for the 25th Annual Convention of the International Studies 
Association, Atlanta, GA, March 1984; Paul Garber, "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Theologian and Precursor 
of Black Theology," Ph.D. disss., Florida State University, 1973, and "Black Theology: The Latter Day 
Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr." The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, vol. ii, no 
2, Spring 1975, and "King was a Black Theologian," The Journal of Religious Thought, Fall— Winter